Published: March 15, 2001.
Wired For Accessibility
Jim Angus, National Institutes of Health, USA
AbstractHow do recent trends in technology affect accessibility of web sites? How can web site developers be certain that their sites are accessible? How will the convergence of technologies such as positioning systems, mobile computing, and wireless connectivity impact accessibility in the future?This paper will provide information about disabilities in general, how to reduce barriers to accessibility, and will include a discussion of the tools and techniques can help the museum professional create web sites that can be used by everyone. The paper will conclude with a few thoughts regarding the impact on accessibility caused by the convergence of technologies such as positioning systems, mobile computing, and wireless connectivity.
Keywords: accessible web design, universal access, adaptive technology, validator, Bobby, ADA, American with Disabilities Act
Many cultural organizations have embraced the web. The ability to reach traditional audiences as well as new audiences in a cost effect manner has lead to a rapid proliferation of museum web sites. Although many of these sites are visually striking, in most cases, the beauty is only skin deep.
There is art in the design of a web site. A site that is accessible to all people has a richer meaning and a deeper beauty because it is able to reach more people in more ways.
What is accessible design? Accessible design is a set of principles that, if adhered to, will promote access to resources for all persons, regardless of physical impairments.
Why should museums apply the principles of accessible design? First and foremost, it is the right thing to do. Museums hold in trust collections of objects that are believed to be of significant scientific or cultural value, and it is the mission of most museums to conserve and interpret these objects for all people, including those that may have physical impairments. In addition, many countries have passed laws that require organizations to provide access to resources in formats that can be used by people with disabilities. For example, in the United States of America persons with disabilities are guaranteed access under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Cynthia D. Waddell, the ADA Coordinator of the City of San Jose, California, says the following on her web site (http://www.icdri.org/applying_the_ada_to_the_internet.htm):
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires covered entities to furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration to the program or service or in an undue burden. See 28 C.F.R. §36.303; 28 C.F.R. §35.160. Auxiliary aids include taped texts, Braille materials, large print materials, captioning and other methods of making audio and visual media available to people with disabilities.
Cultural organizations are generally dedicated to making their information available to all audiences, including those with disabilities. However, most museum web sites are not easy to navigate or use by the disabled.
Recent trends in technology also affect the accessibility of web sites. More and more people are making use of the "wireless" Internet. In many cases, this consists of access to the World Wide Web via a portable, hand-held device that provides text only access to Internet-based resources. These users encounter many of the same problems faced by disabled-users.
The New York Times Cybertimes, on 12/1/1996 printed the following quote from a visually-impaired user:
When blind people use the internet and come across unfriendly sites, we aren't surfing, we are crawling ....Imagine hearing pages that say, 'Welcome to ...[image].' 'This is the home of ... [image].' 'Link, link, link.' It is like trying to use Netscape with your monitor off and the mouse unplugged. See how far you'll get.
People with visual impairments range from the totally blind, to people who have some difficulty reading small print. Visually-impaired users can best be accommodated by supplying alternate text for all images and graphics, ensuring that navigational icons are large and easy to distinguish, and page layouts are flexible. Some visually-impaired users may need to set the default font size in their browser to a larger value. If a page is laid out using tables with fixed sizes, information can be "lost" beyond the borders of the tables or can "disappear" behind illustrations.
Some people are color blind. For example, 1 out of every 10 males has some trouble seeing color. Green text on a red background can not be distinguished by some people.
Cascading style sheets allow the web designer to control the layout of many different pages using a single "style sheet." Although the current implementation of style sheets is poor and interpretation by different browsers is inconsistent, they promise to make access by visually-impaired users easier. In the future, visually-impaired users may be able to "turn off" style sheets so that the content can be accessed unhindered by complex graphic design.
The use of embedded text is an especially large problem. Embedded text is text that has been incorporated into an image. Unless alternate text is provided, the information in the text is lost to visually-impaired users, to people using text or auditory browsers, and to people using low bandwidth connections to the Internet that have graphics "turned off". Just as important, the text is not available to software programs that index content for web search engines. This results in fewer people "finding" the web site when performing a search.
Hearing-impaired people may be completely deaf, or may have partial loss of hearing. For example, some hearing-impaired users can not distinguish between sounds in the "foreground" and sounds in the "distance". These people may have trouble distinguishing the sounds coming from a computer kiosk and the sounds created by museum visitors walking past. Hearing-impaired individuals are best accommodated by providing graphical or textual alternatives to sound tracks. Mainstream visitors will benefit as well. Text tracks in on-line video can be searched, providing all users with a means to access specific information without having to listen to the entire feature.
Some people suffer from decreased mobility. This can range from stiffness of fingers due to arthritis to complete paralysis below the neck. Many people with disabilities use adaptive technology, software or hardware that is designed to provide easier access to electronic resources. Designing web sites for such a wide range of people is difficult, however, if web site designers adhere to the basic principles of Accessible Design then the developers of adaptive technologies will create tools to assist this population.
People with cognitive disabilities may have trouble reading. To better serve this population, web designers should avoid lengthy, text only pages. Navigation of pages should be clear and simple.
Quick Tips to Make Accessible Web Sites
The following tips are provided by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). For Complete Guidelines & Checklist please visit http://www.w3.org/WAI.
Tools to Assist the Web Designer
Many tools are available that can help the web designer produce a site that is accessible. One of the most useful tools is an html validator produced by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). Bobby, as it is called, can be used to check a web page for accessibility and to generate a report that provides a detailed explanation of the page's problems and recommended solutions. Bobby can be found at http://www.cast.org/bobby.
The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative provides a comprehensive list of validators and repair tools on their web site: http://www.w3.org/WAI/ER/existingtools.html#Evaluation. These tools provide an inexpensive method to assess a site, to learn about accessible design and to effect repairs.
The Convergence of Technologies and the Impact on Accessibility
Although one can never be certain what the future will bring, there are several technologies that can be expected to bring profound change to the web and how we access information. Positioning systems, such GPS, when combined with mobile computing systems will soon permit information about places and objects to be virtually "attached" to those places and objects. Imagine a world where information about a place or about a thing can be quickly accessed via voice activated mobile computing devices that whisper information into the user's ear or projects an image onto the user's retina.
In her paper, Judith Kirk will introduce the MUSEpad project, where researchers are designing, developing, and evaluating a mobile computing tool that will enable visitors with disabilities to customize and optimize their learning and leisure experiences in museums through the emerging technology of WorldBoard. WorldBoard utilizes wireless connectivity and positioning technologies to extend the capabilities of the WWW by virtually attaching information and tools to objects and locations.
Johnson, Kristin, (1999) Developing An Accessible Museum Web Site,
December 20, 1999, Thesis Document, Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies.
Waddell, Cynthia, (1998) Applying the ADA to the Internet: A Web Accessibility Standard, consulted January 15, 2001.
World Wide Web Consortium (2000) Web Accessibility Initiative. Last Updated 12 November 2000 by Judy Brewer. Consulted January 15, 2001.